[box cover]

Thirteen Days: infinifilm

Of the many historical precedents that led up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, perhaps the most interesting was the Munich Conference of 1938. Aware that Adolf Hitler had aggressive designs on Czechoslovakia, the conference — attended by Germany, Italy, France, and Great Britain — arrived at the Munich Pact, which allowed Hitler to occupy Czechoslovakia's Sudetanland, the agreement being that the dictator would have no further military ambitions beyond Germany's borders. Umbrella-toting British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to Britain to utter the infamous declaration that Munich would lead to "peace in our time," but it was only a matter of months before Austria and Poland were under Nazi control, and the Munich Pact has since gone down in history as the most egregious example of political appeasement in the 20th century. Nearly 25 years later, President John F. Kennedy understood the failure of Munich all too well — his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain at the time, and he supported both Chamberlain and the Munich Pact. The younger Kennedy would later write a book on the topic, Appeasement at Munich. And when the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, students at Berlin's Free University sent the U.S. president an umbrella — reminding him what happened the last time politicians failed to stand their ground.

Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days examines one of the key events of the brief Kennedy administration, the harrowing two weeks that followed the American detection of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile sites under construction in Cuba, just 90 miles from American soil. The discovery came on the heels of other Cold War conflicts and events, including the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the subsequent "space race," the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the installation of Fidel Castro's communist government, the 1960 shootdown of Gary Powers and the U-2 spyplane over Russian territory, and the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, wherein Cuban exiles failed to re-capture Cuba, largely due to inadequate support from the United States. Taking office in 1961 (after narrowly defeating Vice-President Richard Nixon), the Cold War occupied a great deal of the Kennedy administration's attention, but nobody could have predicted the fallout of the Cuban missile sites — two vast nations, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, rarely able to find a common understanding, and staring each other down in the middle of the ocean as a tenuous naval blockade was put into place. It didn't take long for most Americans to understand that if neither side blinked, a worldwide nuclear conflict could escalate out of control.

*          *          *

Thirteen Days has come under a great deal of criticism for its notable historical inaccuracies. Foremost of these is that the role of Kenneth O'Donnell (played by Kevin Costner) has been vastly inflated for dramatic effect. O'Donnell was a special assistant to the president (his relationship with the Kennedys went back to their Harvard days) and was in the White House at the time. But in reality he did not play as large of a part in the crisis as the film implies. However, it's important to assess Thirteen Days not as a work of history, but foremost as a work of cinema, which is where it excels. It is a political thriller, and like Donaldson's 1987 No Way Out (also starring Costner), it does a fine job of keeping viewers on the edge of their seats while relaying these events in broad strokes. Bruce Greenwood stars as John Kennedy, and while the actor bears little resemblance to the president, he does a remarkable job of capturing the man's essence — the accent, the mannerisms, the tone of voice, all give the impression of a man who is both presidential and very human. Playing Attorney General Robert Kennedy is Steven Culp, who actually bears a striking resemblance to the younger Kennedy (and in fact it's the second time Culp has played RFK on film, the first in the 1996 TV movie Norma Jean and Marilyn). The supporting cast is likewise excellent, particularly Dylan Baker as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who has a small, brilliant temper-tantrum with Admiral George Anderson (Madison Mason) in a dispute over the blockade: "There will be no firing anything at any Soviet ships without my express permission!" he shouts. "And I will only issue such instructions when ordered by the president! This is language! A new vocabulary the likes of which the world has never seen! This is President Kennedy communicating with Secretary Khrushchev!" Among the most memorable scenes of Thirteen Days, the moment also underscores the film's weightiest theme — the reduction of the powerful to the powerless, where the leader of a great nation finds himself forced into a conflict with the paradoxical hope of avoiding one, fully aware that the price of appeasement is too high.

New Line's Thirteen Days is the first DVD release under their "infinifilm" banner, a series of discs that offer a generous amount of extra content, along with greater interactivity as the film plays. With the infinifilm content activated, "on the fly" prompts offer the viewer access to documentary and behind-the-scenes materials, although all of the extra content is also available in the disc's various stand-alone supplements. Thirteen Days is presented in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1, and features include a commentary track with Costner, director Donaldson, scenarist David Self, producers Michael De Luca and Armyan Bernstein, and visual-effects supervisor Michael McAlister; a second "historical" commentary track with comments from President Kennedy, Kenneth O'Donnell, Robert McNamara, press secretary Pierre Salinger, and others; the documentary "Roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis" (48 min.); the behind-the-scenes feature "Bringing History to the Silver Screen" (11 min.); "Historical Information" as a subtitle track; brief video biographies of the historical figures featured in the film; nine deleted scenes; a multi-angle look at a composited jet flyover; cast and crew filmographies; and the theatrical trailer. An outstanding DVD package filled with fact and fiction, and hopefully something that will inspire more people to read up on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Keep-case.
—JJB



Back to Quick Reviews Index: [A-F] [G-L] [M-R] [S-Z]

Back to Main Page